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Image: Oyster Creek nuclear plant
Mel Evans  /  AP
The nuclear reactor at the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey Township, N.J., sits inside this large building. Called "Oyster Creak" by some critics because of its aging problems, this boiling water reactor began running in 1969 and ranks as the country's oldest operating commercial nuclear power plant. Its license was extended in 2009 until 2029.
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updated 6/28/2011 12:03:23 AM ET 2011-06-28T04:03:23

Editor's note: Links to the first three parts of this four-part series are at the end of this report.

When commercial nuclear power was getting its start in the 1960s and 1970s, industry and regulators stated unequivocally that reactors were designed only to operate for 40 years. Now they tell another story — insisting that the units were built with no inherent life span, and can run for up to a century, an Associated Press investigation shows.

By rewriting history, plant owners are making it easier to extend the lives of dozens of reactors in a relicensing process that resembles nothing more than an elaborate rubber stamp.

As part of a yearlong investigation of aging issues at the nation's nuclear power plants, the AP found that the relicensing process often lacks fully independent safety reviews. Records show that paperwork of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sometimes matches word-for-word the language used in a plant operator's application.

Also, the relicensing process relies heavily on such paperwork, with very little onsite inspection and verification.

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And under relicensing rules, tighter standards are not required to compensate for decades of wear and tear.

So far, 66 of 104 reactors have been granted license renewals. Most of the 20-year extensions have been granted with scant public attention. And the NRC has yet to reject a single application to extend an original license. The process has been so routine that many in the industry are already planning for additional license extensions, which could push the plants to operate for 80 years, and then 100.

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Regulators and industry now contend that the 40-year limit was chosen for economic reasons and to satisfy antitrust concerns, not for safety issues. They contend that a nuclear plant has no technical limit on its life.

But an AP review of historical records, along with interviews with engineers who helped develop nuclear power, shows just the opposite: Reactors were made to last only 40 years. Period.

The record also shows that a design limitation on operating life was an accepted truism.

In 1982, D. Clark Gibbs, chairman of the licensing and safety committee of an early industry group, wrote to the NRC that "most nuclear power plants, including those operating, under construction or planned for the future, are designed for a duty cycle which corresponds to a 40-year life."

And three years later, when Illinois Power Co. sought a license for its Clinton station, utility official D.W. Wilson told the NRC on behalf of his company's nuclear licensing department that "all safety margins were established with the understanding of the limitations that are imposed by a 40-year design life."

Some early advocates even believed that technological advances would enable the industry to replace those first models sooner.

Interactive: Aging nuclear plants (on this page)

When he was a member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in the late 1960s, U.S. Rep. Craig Hosmer declared that "power companies expect nuclear generating stations to last 30 years."

Nuclear physicist Ralph Lapp, an advocate of atomic power, predicted a 25-year life span.

One person who should know the real story is engineering professor Richard T. Lahey Jr., at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Lahey once served in the nuclear Navy. Later, in the early 1970s, he helped design reactors for General Electric Co.; he oversaw safety research and development.

Lahey dismisses claims that reactors were made with no particular life span. "These reactors were really designed for a certain lifetime," he said. "What they're saying is really a fabrication."

And nuclear engineer Bill Corcoran, who worked for plant designer Combustion Engineering, said certain features were specifically created with 40 years in mind, like the reactor vessel, which holds the radioactive fuel. He said metals were calculated to hold up against fatigue for that long. Concrete containment buildings had to be strong enough to last that long.

No one analyzed if they could last much longer.

Nuclear life renewed
It's easy to forget that the nuclear industry looked as if it might be dying off in the late 1990s.

In 1999 and 2000, several nuclear plants sold for astounding fire-sale prices of less than $25 million each, according to trade group data obtained by the AP. The country's oldest, Oyster Creek near the New Jersey shore, went for $10 million — a paltry fraction of its $65 million construction cost in dollars adjusted for inflation.

But that was before relicensing, which changed everything.

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Relicensing is a lucrative deal for operators. By the end of their original licenses, reactors are largely paid for. When they're operating, they're producing profits. They generate a fifth of the country's electricity.

New ones would each cost billions of dollars and take many years for approval, construction and testing. Local opposition may be strong. Already there is controversy about the safety of a next-generation design. Even before the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex in Japan, only a handful of proposed new reactors in the U.S. had taken the first steps toward construction.

Solar and wind power are projected to make very limited contributions as electrical demand rises about 30 percent by 2035. So keeping old plants operating makes good business sense.

But some watchdogs suggest the equation isn't that simple.

"The plants aren't any safer because they're needed, and they certainly aren't any safer because someone says they're needed. So that's the wrong way to regulate," said Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner who now sits on the board of the activist Union of Concerned Scientists.

It's challenging to keep existing plants safe and up to date.

The NRC has indicated that safety improvements are likely in the aftermath of melted fuel in the Japanese reactors in March. NRC inspectors have found some problems with U.S. equipment and procedures. But the agency says all sites are ready to deal with earthquakes and flooding. The NRC also has formed a task force to investigate further and report back in July. Both the task force and the NRC chairman have already suggested that changes will be needed.

Story: Beyond Japan's Fukushima exclusion zone, shuttered shops speak to radiation doubts

Meanwhile, license renewals, which began in 2000, continue. The process essentially requires a government-approved plan to manage wear. These plans entail more inspection, testing and maintenance by the operator, but only of certain equipment viewed as subject to deterioration over time.

The plans focus on large systems like reactor vessels. It is assumed that existing maintenance is good enough to keep critical smaller parts — cables, controls, pumps, motors — in good working order for decades more.

Some modernization has been put in place — upgrades on fire-prevention measures and electronic controls, for example. But many potential improvements are limited by the government's so-called "backfit rule." The provision exempts existing units from safety improvements unless such upgrades bring "a substantial increase" in public protection.

Even with required maintenance, aging problems keep popping up.

During its Aging Nukes investigation, the AP conducted scores of interviews and analyzed thousands of pages of industry and government records, reports and data. The documents show that for decades compromises have been made repeatedly in safety margins, regulations and emergency planning to keep the aging units operating within the rules. The AP has reported that nuclear plants have sustained repeated equipment failures, leading critics to fear that the U.S. industry is one failure away from a disaster.

Industry, government as partners
Despite the aging problems, relicensing rules prohibits any overall safety review of the entire operation. More conservative safety margins are not required in anticipation of higher failure rates in old plants, regulators acknowledge.

The approach has turned relicensing reviews into routine approvals.

"Everything I've seen is rubber-stamped," said Joe Hopenfeld, an engineer who worked on aging-related issues at the NRC before retiring in 2008. He has since worked for groups challenging relicensing.

Numerous reports from the NRC's Office of Inspector General offer disturbing corroboration of his view.

For example, in 2002 the inspector general wrote: "Senior NRC officials confirmed that the agency is highly reliant on information from licensee risk assessments." Essentially that means the industry tells the NRC how likely an accident is and the NRC accepts the analysis.

Five years later, in a relicensing audit, the inspector general complained of frequent instances of "identical or nearly identical word-for-word repetition" of the plant applications in NRC reviews. The inspector general worried that the repetition indicated superficial reviews that went through the motions, instead of thorough and independent examinations.

In one instance, both the renewal application for Millstone Unit 2 in Waterford, Conn., and the supposedly independent NRC review described corrosion control with identical language.

From the Millstone application: "The number of planned and unplanned replacements has generally trended downward over the past several years due to the establishment of the Flow-Accelerated Corrosion program and following the recommendations identified in NSAC-202L."

From the NRC review: "The project team reviewed operating experience for the applicant's Flow-Accelerated Corrosion program. The number of planned and unplanned replacements has generally trended downward over the past several years due to the establishment of the Flow-Accelerated Corrosion program and following the recommendations identified in NSAC-202L."

Both reactors at the site were given license extensions in 2005.

The problems went beyond paperwork. The inspector general found that the NRC reviews usually relied on the plants to report on their operating experience, but the agency didn't independently verify the information.

NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said staffers have now agreed to use their own words in their reviews of relicensing applications.

But the inspector general has not re-audited the process since. And Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for the Indian Point reactors 25 miles north of New York City, still describes it as a "collegial process."

It is a process that was shaped in the late 1990s by Christopher Grimes, who was then director of license renewal for the NRC. More recently, he has worked with local Indians to challenge parts of the license renewal request for the Prairie Island nuclear plant in Minnesota.

Map: Spent nuclear fuel (on this page)

Grimes acknowledges that the NRC "has to rely much more on the contents of the applications ... over direct inspection."

He blames budget constraints, but others view relicensing as a charade. Clean Ocean Action unsuccessfully challenged relicensing at Oyster Creek in New Jersey, but chief scientist Jennifer Sampson said, "We really knew it was a waste of time."

Adds Janet Tauro, another activist who fought the Oyster Creek relicensing: "Relicensing is designed for relicensing to happen. They've got all the plants on a conveyor belt, and they don't want anything slowing it down."

From 40 years to 60, and beyond
There are two thrusts to the revisionist argument that nuclear reactors can last for decades and decades: First, that they weren't really designed only for 40 years; second, that there is no technical limitation on any length of time. In theory, they could run forever.

Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer at the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute, says 40 years for the initial license was simply how long it was expected to take to pay off construction loans.

In 2007, as Entergy Nuclear Operations sought a license extension for the Pilgrim reactor in Massachusetts, it wrote: "The original 40-year license term was selected on the basis of economic and antitrust considerations rather than on technical limitations."

Yet writers seemingly contradicted themselves in the same document: "During the design phase for a plant, assumptions concerning plant operating durations are incorporated into design calculations for plant systems, structures, and components."

The next year, an NRC report was more emphatic about the economic rationale of 40-year license, insisting that "this time limit was developed from utility antitrust concerns and not physically based design limitations from engineering analysis, components, or materials."

Even so, it too felt compelled to acknowledge, in passing, that "some individual plant and equipment designs" were engineered for 40 years of life.

What's the truth? Fifty years ago, rural electricity cooperatives, worried about competition, did object to granting indefinitely long licenses to the new nuclear industry. But that's only part of the story.

The 40-year license was created by Congress as a somewhat arbitrary political compromise — "some long period of time, because nobody in his right mind would want to operate a nuclear plant beyond that time,'" said Ivan Selin, an engineer who chaired the NRC in the early 1990s.

Instead of stopping at 40 years, or even 60, the industry began advancing the idea of even longer nuclear life in discussions with its NRC partners starting several years ago.

One of the first clear signs of their intentions emerged in 2008 with an NRC-industry workshop on nuclear life beyond 60 years. Its summary said that "participants did not believe there is any compelling policy, regulatory, technical or industry issue precluding future extended plant operations."

The next year, an issue paper by the industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute said that "many experts believe ... that these plants can operate safely well beyond their initial or extended operating periods — possibly to 80 or 100 years."

In November, an EPRI survey of industry executives found that more than 60 percent of executives strongly believed reactors can last at least 80 years.

EPRI engineer Neil Wilmshurst said in an interview that many in the industry foresee the feasibility of reactors lasting even longer.

Adding its own push, Congress has set aside $12 million over the past two fiscal years for the Department of Energy to study if nuclear plants can last decades longer.

So for industry, the question is not if plants can run decades longer — that is now presumed true — but for how long?

"The research must start now, as it will take years to gather the data necessary to justify life extension out to 80 or 100 years," EPRI says in a background document.

Maria Korsnick, senior vice president of Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, indicated that her company may start applying for a second license extension within 10 years. Constellation owns two of the country's oldest reactors, Nine Mile Point and Ginna in upstate New York. It also owns Calvert Cliffs in Lusby, Md., which acquired the industry's first renewed license in March 2000.

"My challenge is that if you go ahead and let these current operating units retire, you're going to end up with a gap before you're going to have sufficiently been able to build the new nuclear plants to take their place," Korsnick said. "Why put myself in that crisis?"

How long can they go?
Reactors and their surrounding equipment obviously were not made to fall apart the day after their 40th birthday. But how long can they safely last?

Other power generators have recognized the limits of design life. Though plants burning coal and other traditional fuels incorporate many similar systems to nuclear units — minus the atomic reactor — 90 percent close within 50 years, according to Department of Energy data analyzed by the AP.

Dana Powers, a member of the NRC's independent Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, said he believes nuclear plants can last for just one license extension, or up to 60 years total. "I doubt they go two," he added.

Map: Nuclear blackout (on this page)

Peter Lyons, a physicist and recent NRC commissioner, said several features of plants are extraordinarily hard to replace and could limit their lifetimes. They include reactor vessels, electric cables set in concrete, and underground piping.

And Brian Wirth, an engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies how radiation makes metal prone to breaking, said the industry may not even have the ability to check for possible damage to reactor vessels for an 80-year life span.

In an AP interview at NRC headquarters here, agency chairman Gregory Jaczko said decisions on license extensions are based on safety, not economics.

Former NRC chief Selin says extension decisions should be made "on a case-by-case basis."

And industry executives and regulators acknowledge that more research is needed.

In the past, though, both parties found ways to shift assumptions, theories and standards enough to keep reactors chugging.

There's every reason to think they'll try to do it again.

-------------------

Earlier parts of this series:
Story: Safety rules loosened for aging nuclear reactors 
Story: Radioactive tritium leaks found at 48 US nuke sites
Story: US nuclear evacuation plans haven't kept up with population

The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate@ap.org

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Map: Population within 10 and 50 miles of nuclear power

These are the 65 locations of the 104 commercial nuclear power reactors in the United States, showing populations living within certain distances of the plants. Population figures use the 2010 Census.

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